(This guest column was written by Bob Sanders, Ducks Unlimited's manager of conservation programs for Montana, and Nick Gevock, conservation director for Montana Wildlife Federation. It appeared in the Missoulian.)

All Montanans benefit from public lands. We all know it, whether were a hunter, hiker or rancher who depends on those lands for grazing. Public lands both our federal national forest, Bureau of Land Management and other agency lands, and our state lands are essential to Montana. They support our incredible quality of life, they support our agriculture industry, they provide natural resource jobs and they support the booming outdoor recreation industry.

An important piece of the overall public lands puzzle are targeted purchases and protective conservation easements under the Habitat Montana program. Habitat Montana is now over three decades old, and it doesnt use any general fund money. Its funded by a fee on hunting licenses, and used for conservation easements with willing landowners who also provide public hunting access, for fee title purchases of land with high wildlife values, and for fishing access sites.

The fortune we have as Montanans to have the foresight of those who came before us cannot be overstated. Montana was at a crossroads years ago, when game numbers were starting to rebound from the dismally low era of the early 20th century. Private landowners were starting to incur game damage to fences and crops. Among the early investments in winter range by officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for elk and deer was the area that became the Judith River Wildlife Management Area.

Early on, Montana FWP had to scramble to come up with funding for these land protection projects. It often turned to Pittman-Robertson funds, which is the excise tax on firearms, ammunition and sporting equipment that has been incredibly successful in our country. But PR funds require state matching dollars, and by the 1980s the need for a predictable, steady state funding source was apparent.

Thats when Habitat Montana was created. Landowners were approaching FWP wanting to either sell their land, or protect it with a conservation easement. Habitat Montana has over the years been a major success for wildlife, hunters, anglers and recreationists of all stripes. Montana has more than 880,000 acres of land as Wildlife Management Areas or under a protective conservation easement. These lands are targeted for their high wildlife values. And they often adjoin public lands, meaning the public access footprint of Habitat Montana is much larger than the total acres directly opened up by the program.

Habitat Montana benefits our farmers and ranchers, too, in several ways. It provides working capital to help them secure their financial futures, whether through paying off debt or expanding their operations. And it has provided essential winter range for wildlife, which gives them an option to raiding haystacks, damaging crops and tearing down fences.

Montana is a special place. Its one of the few remaining states where everyone can afford to hunt and fish and have the room to do it. In fact, all Montanans have the opportunity to do what most of the rest of the country would consider world-class hunts every year. The investment weve made in habitat through Habitat Montana is a big part of that. Its vital that this program continue because of its significance for our cherished wildlife, our agricultural economy and our incredible quality of life.

Montanans of all stripes will be celebrating that heritage at the Rally for Public Lands at noon Friday, Jan. 11, in the state Capitol Rotunda.